Dave Nichols has been a bilateral amputee for nearly half a century. He’s fluid in his walk, with full range of motion in his knees, although his legs were blown off below the knee in a landmine explosion during his tour in Vietnam in 1970.
At the same time, the Army veteran feels it is unfair for him to tell other amputees how to live their lives, especially if he doesn’t fully understand their physical and emotional challenges. But if he did give advice to a fellow disabled vet, he would say there are many adaptive programs they can take advantage of to stay active.
“After years of being like this, I look at my disability more like a job,” Nichols says. “I take the emotional aspect out of it. You want to do the best job you can. It’s a job with no vacation. It’s about being innovative. It’s about adapting to equipment or keeping yourself in shape, making sure you work out.
“The biggest thing is the living room couch. If you don’t get off the couch, you’re done. Once you get out and about, you find that people will look at you as just another person. They’re going to look at you as somebody out there doing your best. People sometimes are afraid to approach you. But with a little nonverbal communication, you keep a smile on your face. Don’t walk around like you don’t want to talk to anybody.”
Nichols has been incredibly active. He’s been an avid golfer, a skier and ski instructor, and a boxing coach who has sparred. He recently took up pickleball, which includes elements of tennis, table tennis, and badminton.
A year-round special events competitor, Nichols at VA’s Summer Sports Clinic.
He’s looking forward to participating in the VA 2019 National Veterans Golden Age Games, June 5-10, 2019, in Anchorage, Alaska. At 69 years old, he’ll be competing in golf, pickleball, badminton, and the javelin throw. He’s taken part in the Golden Age Games for nearly a decade and has won medals in golf and javelin.
“I’ve really enjoyed it,” Nichols says. “I like to compete. But more than anything, I like the social interaction. I want to get out there and do my very best. Being an amputee motivates me a little bit. But if I don’t win, I’m not upset. At my age, I’m just lucky I’m out there doing it.”
In 1970, Army private first-class Nichols was with the 173rd Airborne Brigade as it cleared out an enemy base camp in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam when enemy fighters detonated a landmine. The explosion left Nichols with what he describes as an “out-of-body experience.”
“One second, you’re walking and talking to infantrymen and you feel confident,” explains Nichols, who received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his service. “The next thing, you’re on the ground without any feet. You feel like, `What now?’ It’s like you have to create a whole new image of yourself. You don’t know who you are anymore.”
Nichols in Vietnam.
Nichols spent nine months in the hospital. Having suffered no nerve or muscle damage in his knees in the explosion, he was able to retain a lot of his balance and the ability to climb ramps and stairs.
“I’ve been walking with prosthetics now for 48 years,” he says. “I’m ambulatory. I don’t have a wheelchair or anything like that.”
Today, Nichols is in great shape at 5 feet 9 inches, and 150 pounds. A resident of Stone Ridge, New York, he golfs in the Eastern Amputee Golf Association. He’s up to about a 14 handicap, after once being between an eight and nine. He chalks up the decline to not playing much recently because of his involvement with other sports like skiing.
He skis in Windham, New York, and teaches people with disabilities how to ski.
With a wife, three kids, and three grandchildren, he finds that life has been good to him.
“There are days when I get up and go, `It’s going to be a rough day,'” he says. “But normally everything is fine. I’m going all day. I’ve been very fortunate because my disability is manageable.”
This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.